THIS fight is now a reality, after UFC star Conor McGregor teased us a few times about a possible bout with Floyd Mayweather Jnr. Just when we were dismissing the idea, McGregor applied for and was granted a California boxing licence. Then UFC President Dana White offered $25 million to each fellow (plus a cut of the pay-per-view profits), an offer at which Mayweather sneered. Manny Pacquiao piped in and said he’d be willing to fight McGregor, but the Irishman has remained focused on Mayweather. “It’s a fight the people want,” McGregor said most recently. “It’s the fight I want.”
It was just about enough to keep our imaginations tweaked.
McGregor, of course, is hardly the first thrill seeker with some boxing in his background to think about trying his luck at the professional level. The worst of them, and by no means is he comparable to McGregor, was probably Arthur Cravan, an eccentric poet and magazine publisher. In the spring of 1916, Cravan gloved up in a Barcelona bullring to meet no less than former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Cravan, who was strongly built and had received a bit of boxing training, spent five farcical rounds covered up in a kind of standing fetal position. When Johnson grew bored, he dropped Cravan in the sixth. A peer of Cravan’s, poet Blaise Cendrars, wrote that Johnson “stretched him out cold with a formidable punch to the left ear, a blow worthy of a slaughterhouse.
Conor McGregor might fare a little better than some poet with a death wish. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Reports of McGregor sparring at the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles were not exactly glowing; clips of him hitting a heavy bag weren’t inspiring, either. He’s brilliant in MMA, and he’s more of a puncher than most cage grapplers, but his days of being an All-Ireland boxing champion at the youth level were long ago.
Professional athletes from various sports have tried boxing. Some did well. Others flopped. Here are five examples from a list that is much longer than you think.
Wrestler | Boxing record: 0-1-1
Built like a gorilla and nearly as hairy, Gotch was to wrestling in the early 1900s what the great John L. Sullivan had been to boxing. Gotch rose to incredible popularity as the undisputed freestyle heavyweight wrestling champion of the world; it wasn’t unusual for his bouts to be held in Major League Baseball parks, so high was the demand to see him tie opponents in knots.
During an exhibition tour of the Klondike in 1901, Gotch was talked into facing veteran heavyweight contender Frank Slavin of Australia. Interest in Gotch was so hot that pitting him against anyone, even a 40-year-old boxer, was a worthwhile commercial venture. But Gotch learned the hard way not to tangle with boxers on their own turf.
The bout, held at the New Savoy Theater in Dawson City, was a disaster for Gotch. Varying accounts, usually told years after the fact, had Slavin needing only a few rounds to jab Gotch into near blindness. In the fourth, the bloodied Gotch grew so frustrated that he grabbed Slavin and, according to some versions of the story, tossed him out of the ring. Gotch’s poor sportsmanship earned him a disqualification, not to mention police intervention.
Gotch maintained his boxing interest; he supposedly took part in a few “private” bouts, tried to enlist Tommy Ryan as a trainer, and even threw down challenges to the likes of “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien. During America’s search for a great white hope to unseat Jack Johnson as heavyweight champion, former champ James J. Corbett offered to train Gotch for a shot at Johnson’s title. But Gotch’s only other bout of record was a 1905 12-rounder in Spokane, Washington against a novice named Boomer Weeks. Gotch injured his right hand early in the bout and fought the rest of the way one-armed. The verdict was a draw, though a Nevada journal claimed Gotch “got the worst of the argument.”
Ed “Too Tall” Jones
American Football | Boxing record: 6-0 (5)
Jones was a star defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys when he interrupted his career to try pugilism. Though he’d been a popular player, fans and the press viewed his ring adventure in purely negative terms. There was a feeling that he’d forsaken a great football career to toil in, what Jimmy Cannon once called, “the red light district of sports.”
He barely survived his first bout against journeyman Abraham Meneses. A hook to the head in the final round left Jones dazed; inspired, Meneses charged in and knocked Jones to the canvas and then smacked “Too Tall” in the head while he was down. Jones survived the chaos and escaped with a majority decision win, but impressed no one. Red Smith, of The New York Times, wrote of Jones’ boxing debut, “He cannot box, he cannot punch, and his chin gives off a musical tinkle when tapped.”
Jones put his gloves away after his sixth bout, claiming that his mother wanted him to stop. She was probably tired of seeing him fight tomato cans.
American Football | Boxing record: 15-2 (15)
Gastineau’s boxing career, filled with accusations of fixed fights that hold more than a little weight, was a poor example of an NFL player- turned-fighter. After retiring from American football in 1990, former New York Jets star Gastineau ventured into boxing. Though he created a small amount of interest based on his name, he never convinced anyone that his ring work was anything more than a joke.
The charade ended when Gastineau travelled to Chiba, Japan to face another ex-NFL player, Alonzo Highsmith. Gastineau was stopped at 0-20 of the second round. He never fought again.
Highsmith, after being knocked out by the unheralded Terry Verners, and struggling to a draw with journeyman Reggie Gross, followed Gastineau into retirement.
Baseball | Boxing record: 5-2 (5)
Along with a lifetime batting average of .291, Chicago White Sox first baseman Shires took swings at team-mates, the club secretary, hotel detectives, opposing players, umpires, and even his manager. The United Press reported in February 1929, “Shires is rated as the best man in the league with his fists.” After being suspended for his umpteenth hotel brawl, Shires scrambled for ways to supplement his baseball income. A chance encounter with Jack Dempsey’s trainer, Teddy Hayes, inspired Shires to bring his itching fists into the ring.
After an easy debut win, Shires was matched against American football star George Trafton, a player once described by Red Smith with a single word: “carnivorous”. At Chicago’s White City Arena, the much fatter Trafton dropped Shires three times and won a five-round decision. The bout was described 15 years later in The Nebraska State Journal as being “as vicious and spectacular as it was hilarious.”
Shires fought on until baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruled against baseball players doubling as prizefighters. There was also a sense that Shires’ bouts weren’t exactly on the level.
In 1935, Shires returned to boxing and was promptly stopped in two rounds by a Dallas farmhand named Sid Hunter. A few weeks later, Shires was in Fort Worth, Texas scoring a third-round KO of the unknown Joe Daley. Shires made some noise about fighting world heavyweight champion Max Baer, but he soon took a job managing a Minor League Baseball club. His boxing career was over, but he never strayed too far from the headlines.
American Football | Boxing record: 25-11-3 (17)
Powell will probably go down in history as the best American football player-turned-fighter. During the 1950s, he split his time between playing for the San Francisco 49ers and campaigning in the heavyweight division. At one point he was good enough to score an eighth-round stoppage over the highly regarded Nino Valdez. Powell had been a 4-1 underdog; however, his victory over Valdez boosted his confidence. “Now I can concentrate on boxing alone,” he said.
Unfortunately, poor management and inconsistency in the ring prevented Powell from becoming an elite heavyweight. By his early 30s he’d attained “trial horse” status and was losing more often than he won. His final appearance resulted in a controversial KO loss to Londoner Billy Walker. Many ringsiders called the bout, which ended at 2-32 of the second round, a fraud.
Chaos. Fraud. Embarrassment. That’s usually what happens when athletes from another sport get into boxing. Granted, there have been some sunny exceptions. Vitali Klitschko, for instance, came from the world of kickboxing to become one of the most highly regarded heavyweights of the post Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield era. But there’s a nagging suspicion that McGregor isn’t going to put the work in to become another Vitali Klitschko. In fact, if McGregor’s flirtation with boxing reminds us of anyone, it would be Wilt Chamberlain, the legendary NBA player. Wilt “The Stilt” never came close to putting on gloves, but he sure had fun with the idea; he had a willing co-conspirator in Muhammad Ali.
Older fight fans may recall that an Ali-Chamberlain bout was on the verge of being signed for the summer of 1971 at the Houston Astrodome. The gigantic Chamberlain balked at the last minute over money issues. After more than an hour of backroom discussion, Astrodome executive Jack O’Connell sheepishly told the awaiting press, “We do not have a fight to announce.”
Was Ali-Chamberlain even remotely close to happening, or was it just hype? NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy was against it, saying that NBA club contracts prohibited players from taking part in boxing or wrestling contests. Chamberlain’s boss, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, disapproved because Chamberlain might be injured and jeopardise his team’s season. Many years later, promoter Bob Arum said that Chamberlain pulled out because Ali intimidated him. The non-event certainly helped to keep Ali’s name in the news. The rub didn’t hurt Chamberlain, either.
Is McGregor just a contemporary version of Chamberlain? Is he merely, as most believe, enjoying the publicity that comes with taunting Mayweather? Or maybe he’s another Frank Gotch, likely to lose his temper and throw Mayweather out of the ring. We just don’t know.
Conor McGregor has some obvious advantages over some of his predecessors. He is, after all, a fighter already. Chances are his punches may lack the snap of an experienced professional boxer, but he has plenty of toughness, and his ego won’t let him give up without a fight. He also has enough personality to light up a dozen press conferences, even without Mayweather.
And it will certainly be interesting to see how McGregor reacts when Nevada boxing officials tell him to trim his beard.